If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking a few times a month, and it's better late than never! Most reviews nowadays are labeled "FTP:" and you should read THIS PRIMER to understand why. Also, while they're marked nowadays, many of the site's older reviews (i.e. 2010 or older) do contain unannounced spoilers, so tread carefully! Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.


FTP: Children of the Night (2014)

MAY 29, 2023


I don’t know what the oldest movie in “the pile” is, but Children of the Night (aka Limbo) has to be in the running, as it came out in October of 2015 (and, since it was sent for review consideration, means I probably got it a month earlier). My life is very different now! Since this film has been sitting there waiting for me to watch it, I’ve moved, gotten a new (used) car, published two books, lost two side jobs (typical layoff and covid shutdown, respectively), and helped turn a baby who only just started walking into a 9 year old who has his own TV and can figure out Zelda bosses easier than I can. Kind of crazy, at least in a low key way that's probably not interesting to anyone reading.

But I bring it up because I wonder if I would have enjoyed the film as much then as I did now. My thoughts on “evil” children movies have gone through the wringer since I had my own child, but here’s one where the kids – who are all vampires – are actually the good guys. Sure, they need human blood and can be pretty creepy, but they also just want to do kid things and eat curry (a drug to their vampiric kind – a delightfully odd idea I must say), as none of them asked to be vampires. And they’re all being hunted by a group of black-clad men who believe them to be the devil spawn or whatever, so it’s not hard to, at the very least, hope they take down the hunter jerks with them.

Caught in the middle is Alicia (Sabrina Ramos), a writer who got a tip about the retreat where all of the children live, believing them to all be suffering from some kind of illness with no cure. At first she’s confused, then scared once she realizes what they are, but then comes around to being an ally, thanks in part to the fact that one of the children is actually her girlhood bestie. As vampires tend to do, he hasn’t aged since she last saw him when they were adolescents, so she finds herself weirdly drawn to this now-man trapped in a child’s body, and of course wanting to protect him so she doesn’t lose him again. It’s a potentially icky plot point, and has a few eyebrow raising moments (they don’t *do* anything, I should stress – she just acts charmed by his seemingly inappropriate comments instead of overly concerned), but it’s ultimately a rather sweet unconventional (and, again, physically platonic!) love story.

But it’s also a vampire movie, and while there isn’t a lot of action, what we get is pretty entertaining, since it’s… well, a bunch of kids taking on grown men. At one point a kid literally kicks the head off one attacker, and the other kids momentarily kick it back and forth like a soccer ball – it’s delightful. The music accompanying these scenes is also top notch, as it weirdly reminds me (of all things) of the music in Tetris Effect: Connected, where it’s exciting but also kind of relaxing? Hard to explain unless you’ve also played that game (and you should! It’s the best version!). I also like how they handle the usual tie-in to pop culture vampires, as it proposes the idea that Bram Stoker was a self-loathing vampire who wrote his book to expose the (real) Dracula, who as it turns out is the grandfather of one of the children there. Silly? Sure, but I’ll take it over the usual corny line about Bela Lugosi “getting it wrong” or whatever

. Honestly the only real flaw, besides running a little too long, is that the low budget is occasionally far too apparent on screen. The video/soap opera look I eventually adjusted to, but there are a number of scenes where it seems like they tried to hide a mistake with a superimposed black oval? For example, in one scene, it seems one of the child actors missed their cue and just stood there while the others ran around, and they tried to hide it with one of these ovals, but another actor crosses in front of them, so the oval disappears and we see the kid just standing there – it’s seriously far more distracting than it would have been to just not draw our attention to it in the first place, though I’m sure it could have worked if the oval in any way matched the color of the rest of the image. There are a few other lo-fi “fixes” like that in the movie that kind of keep calling attention to how under budgeted it was, distracting away from the surprisingly involving story. For some reason there’s a remake of One Cut of the Dead coming, but I feel something like this would be a far better option to remake, as the low budget (which was part of One Cut’s charm, not a handicap) actually harms it here and it deserves a polished presentation.

Director/writer Ivan Noel provides a commentary where he notes some of their budgetary issues and thanks the many people who did favors (CGI shots of a moon eclipse, for example), making it a fine track for those who might feel they can’t pull off their own ambitious projects due to a lack of resources. He also notes that the movie was an hour longer at one point (I’m sure he meant his first assembly as opposed to a “director’s cut”; people who don’t understand the difference make reporting on such things an incredible nuisance), though the only other bonus feature is a 20ish minute behind the scenes where we can see everyone was just enjoying the experience and having a sort of summer camp vibe during the proceedings. Since the movie was still too long, I can’t say I need MORE scenes from the film, but if this stuff was in any way elaborate I can’t help but wonder if he tightened his script in the first place perhaps some of those limited resources wouldn’t have been spread so thin.

That said, what’s left is still much better than I would have guessed after the first few minutes (my heart sunk when I saw that video look), so he pulled it off! It has a lot of tones (sweet and nostalgic! Dryly ironic! Kind of scary!) but Noel balances it out fairly well, and Ramos is an engaging presence (as is Ana María Giunta as Erda, the childrens’ caretaker, wearily dealing with things like one of the children sleep-flying). And then I had to laugh that since the movie’s ten years old now, all of the kids in it are now adults. Such is life in the pile!

What say you?


Fast X (2023)

MAY 17, 2023


NOTE: No, this isn’t a horror movie, but I have a weird affinity for these movies IN PART because of their Saw-like continuity and tendency to retcon previous films, so it's like an adjacent kinda thing? But also I just have nowhere else to ramble about them outside of Facebook or whatever. And it’s my site and I can do what I want! That said: I'm assuming anyone reading is a fan of these things, so if you're not well versed in Fast and/or Furious lore (i.e. who the characters are), don't bother since a lot of this won't make much sense.

One of the ways my OCD manifests is a need to complete/finish things, even if I’m not enjoying it. This happens a lot with video games, particularly open world types: I finish the main campaign, but then feel like I *have* to go around and find all the collectibles or do all the side missions I skipped along the way. Sometimes I find it enjoyable (weirdly, the Mad Max game was a total delight for me, though it was not a particularly well received game at all), others not, but either way I usually have this feeling of “It’s over, why am I still here?” but keep going anyway. And that same feeling is what I have gotten from all the Fast & Furious movies since the end of Furious 7, where Paul Walker’s character literally drove off into the sunset. The real life reason for this send off was of course, tragic and awful, but as no one involved could bring themselves to kill Brian off (especially considering how Walker's real life death was, alas, in the same kind of car crash his character routinely walked away from) or recast him, this was the best way to end things. It’s a perfect finale, and I’ve sobbed at it more than once.

But money! So they kept making them anyway, and each film has to struggle to explain Brian's absence. It hasn't been the most gracious workaround, but I’m happy to report that of the three films since (not counting Hobbs & Shaw, in which none of the other “family” members appear anyway) Fast X has the most plausible explanation for his absence. Sure, the villain (Jason Momoa) has a specific beef with Dom AND Brian because he’s the son of the warlord guy they killed at the end of Fast Five, but after a quick action scene with Jordana Brewster’s Mia, she joins Brian and their children in hiding, and Momoa’s Dante is seen more than once intercepting their calls and blocking communication, so it’s a (movie, specifically a Fast movie) plausible enough explanation – they can’t get a hold of him, he's not going to give his position away, and Momoa’s too busy with the main target (Dom, of course) to worry about it, I guess. In the previous film, Mia joined along the whole time while her and Dom’s brother (John Cena) tried to kill them, so it was odd that Dom’s surrogate brother (and now actual brother in law) wouldn’t at least make a phone call. And the one before that made even less sense, as Dom was seemingly evil and they were trying to understand why… without the aid of the guy who knew him best? I mean it’s still a little weird, but it works better than anything else they’ve tried, so I’ll give it a pass.

That’s not to say I didn’t miss the character, and the film is still lesser because of the hole he leaves in the ensemble. But this time around they engineered a narrative that didn’t have me questioning his absence nearly as often. Part of that is because Dom barely interacts with any of the family, again – as with the previous two films, the plot seems written around the fact that Diesel is a jerk who no one wants to work with. After the obligatory barbecue scene at the beginning, I don’t think he has a single scene with any other family member besides Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty, and even that is brief. But they wisely scatter ALL of the family this time around, so while it’s kind of an episodic structure that ends up feeling like a lot of wheel spinning prologue for the next two films (this is said to be the first part of a trilogy that will be the series’ finale), at least it manages to escape the shadow of the behind the scenes issues that plagued Fate and F9 (and even F7, though at least the excuse there was more valid than someone being a diva). Like, yeah, Brian isn’t around – but John Cena doesn’t have a single scene with Dom either, and Letty never really interacts with anyone after the first 15 minutes, and there’s still no explanation for where Hobbs is, so now it’s more like par for the course as opposed to an outlier.

Also, unlike the ridiculous idea that Dom would ever ring Roman up for help (seriously, the two characters have never directly interacted in a single one of these movies), this time around Roman is trying to lead his own op to prove he can be a leader, so there's a built-in excuse why he wouldn't have called Brian AND there's no actual point where Dom seemingly specifically wants him around. So Roman enlists Tej, Ramsey, and Han to secure some whatevers from whoevers (it’s purposely vague because it’s all a setup anyway, so whatever), leaving Dom and Letty at home to do whatever it is they do when they're not traveling the globe and destroying things. But Cipher shows up at their door and tells them about Dante, and before long they realize Roman and the others are in danger, so they hop on a jet I guess (they seemingly get there roughly five minutes later) to try to stop them from taking part in their setup heist. But they're too late, the op is already underway when Tej and Ramsey realize that someone has set them up, and their would be heist is actually having them inadvertently delivering a bomb to the Vatican (!). Dom arrives in time to manage to prevent that much of course, but the bomb still destroys some other stuff, and the Agency (Kurt Russell’s black ops company, now led by a new guy since Russell’s character is still MIA for whatever reason) turns on him and the rest of the family, arresting Letty while the others manage to escape. So everyone is scattered – you got Roman and the others trying to make their way to the group’s safehouse, Dom tracking down Dante, Letty in the Agency’s jail with Cipher (who is now – sigh – an uneasy ally as Momoa left her for dead and stole her army), and Jakob (Cena) also trying to get to the safehouse, with Dom’s son in tow.

The movie basically takes turns with these four groups (plus checking in with Momoa whenever he’s not with Dom), giving some characters a chance to interact in new ways (this is the first time Cipher has had a scene with anyone else besides Dom, and her fight with Letty is one of the movie’s highlights – took three movies but they finally did something with Furiosa besides have her glower at monitors) and moving fast enough to hopefully not ever think too much about where, say, Luke Hobbs is, or why Helen Mirren keeps showing up for single scenes with Diesel. But there are simply too many characters at this point; Jason Statham eventually shows up for a few minutes to provide Roman and the others with some weapons and cars (his promised face off with Han is a big wet fart though; we’ve pretty much seen the extent of it – and his entire performance, in fact – in the trailer), and we even meet Elena’s sister, because why not? It wasn’t even until the movie was over that I remembered Michael Rooker was supposed to be in it again, not sure what happened there.

In fact, in a weird way it’s almost a relief that a couple of cast members are MIA for whatever reason, because the biggest hurdle for the movie has been this series absolute refusal to kill anyone off permanently (minor spoiler – there’s another resurrection in this one, and even Dante is said to have died for two minutes during Fast Five’s finale, as he is retconned into one of the guys in the cars that got destroyed during the bridge sequence). Yes, we love all these characters and don’t necessarily want them to die, nor be asking where they are during the increasingly silly and personal stakes that each film establishes, but I couldn’t help but think of Avengers: Infinity War a lot during this one, where even with a bloated runtime they still barely managed to find anything to do for major players. Remember the first time you saw Infinity War and thought “Why is any random Thanos monster in this movie more than Black Panther?” You might end up feeling that way here; in fact I think Momoa actually has the most screentime of any other actor, including Diesel. Since there are like five threads running through it including his, any time you cut away from someone you know it’ll be 20 minutes before you see them again, reducing most of the cast to cameos (there are three “withs” and two “ands” in the cast credits). And I haven’t even mentioned new additions like Brie Larson (as Mr Nobody’s daughter) and the return of Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), who jumps out of an exploding car and the rest of the movie entirely after one action sequence. Even Diesel seems to be in it less than usual; it's 140 minutes long, but there’s no time for anyone.

Except Momoa. And honestly, I think 90% of my affinity for the film is thanks to him. This series has had few memorable villains in retrospect, since so many of them end up being allies (Cipher makes the FOURTH antagonist from one movie to join up with them in a future one, or five if you count Owen Shaw since he helped out in Fate), making rewatches a little awkward when you’re reminded of how many terrible things they did before their change of heart (Cena in particular doesn’t even seem like the same character he played last time). But Momoa is having an absolute blast, preening and practically dancing around the sets during his scenes, almost like a Nic Cage type go for broke performance. One has to assume there’s no way he can be retconned into another sidekick, but as stupid as that would be it’s almost a shame, since it’d be wonderful to see him bouncing off the others. Again due to the episodic structure of the story, he never interacts with any of the other regular cast members besides Dom and (briefly) Cipher; he keeps talking about breaking Dom’s “family” but if he ever even shares the screen with all those other people on the poster I must have missed it. Oh wait, he grabs a doohickey from Brie Larson, so there’s something.

The other thing I liked about this one, oddly enough, was that the action was less insane. Fate had the “zombie car” sequence, and in the last one they went to space (and honestly that wasn’t even the silliest moment). But here, the most mega part is probably the first big one, where the out of control bomb (a giant rolling boulder-type one) smashes through Rome on its way to the Vatican. The rest is, relative to this series, grounded, back to the levels of (appropriately) Fast Five and Furious 6. This allows them to do more things practically again (kind of hard to avoid CGI when flying a rocket car in space) but also keep the absolute nonsense to a minimum, because we’re already accepting enough of it with regards to the plot and the insanely large cast, so it’s almost a relief when you see an action scene that almost stays within the realm of the earth’s laws of gravity and physics, or at least meeting us halfway. Speaking of physics, Dom pulls off a targeting maneuver with the bomb that even Bullseye from the Marvel comics might be impressed by (never play pool against this dude), but there are only two other moments as ridiculous in the film, and they’re both in the trailer (Dom sandwiching the two choppers together, and driving down the side of an exploding dam). It’s the most expensive movie in the series by far, but it seems most of it went to the multiple locations and paying everyone’s salaries, instead of concerning themselves with topping the previous entry's spectacle, which is - to the series' detriment - been the MO for over a decade now. Is this a good movie? In the traditional sense, no. It’s convoluted in ways that aren’t always fun (there’s a double cross near the end of the movie that renders the character’s actions in the previous hour completely pointless) and focuses on a revenge mission where the villain – fun as he is – never seems to be able to accomplish anything (even the lone death that matters in the film was a character’s self-sacrifice, not a direct result of Dante’s bloodthirst). And even knowing it’s the first part of a two (now three, apparently) finale, the ending is pretty abrupt and unsatisfying. But it’s a lot of fun to watch all the same, and – more importantly, at least to me – it rises above the last two movies to get within spitting distance of ridding me of that “playing a video game after I finished the campaign” feeling. Or I’m just more used to it, now that it’s the third (or fourth, with H&S) entry that’s been operating under those circumstances, where the movies are designed around the death of one lead and the polarizing nature of the other. Plus, if you’ve heard the news about the film’s final tease, you know it sends you off an exciting high, which – especially after the “wait, that’s it?”ness of the actual ending – is always a good thing. That said, I hope they just wrap it up with one movie instead of two, because I can’t see their luck extending that far.

What say you?

P.S. Since it seems necessary: 5, 6, 7, 1 / 4, Tokyo, X, Fate, 9, 2, Hobbs


FTP: Motivational Growth (2013)

MAY 16, 2023


One thing that frustrates me about the indie horror scene is how often I see things that really aren’t that much different from the big studio offerings, at least in terms of the stories they are telling. Sure, the films from the Screen Gems and Paramounts of the world will boast bigger stars and production value, but it’s nice when there’s a distinction re: what they’re about. Which is to say I can’t imagine a movie like Motivational Growth coming out on 3,000 screens with trailers for the newest Marvel sequel attached, and that’s exactly what I want from my indie horror. Not all the time, of course – there’s always some room for the generic slashers and possession tales at any price point! But it’d be nice if things like this movie were the norm, not the exception, when it came to very low budget genre offerings.

Because this is a movie about a guy named Ian who never leaves his apartment and has a talking mold growth in his bathroom that encourages him to get his life together, a plot that kicks off when his only friend, Kent, dies. And Kent is a vintage television set.

So, yeah. Weird movie, right? And admittedly, it’s not exactly one I’ll be pulling off the shelf all that often – it can be a bit repetitive, for example. Writer/director/editor Don Thacker comes from a short film background (and has made several more since) and that sort of shows; you can almost hear him wondering how to get things padded out to 90 minutes at times, especially given the fact that the film never leaves the confines of the apartment (save for some hallucinated scenes in which Ian sees himself as a character on some old (fictional) TV shows). So it’s a lot of “someone shows up and talks to Ian, who makes them leave before talking to The Mold for a bit before someone else interrupts” kind of circular plotting, and the film is even broken up into ten chapters, which we learn on the commentary was implemented in case he couldn’t get funding for a feature and had to break it up into ten shorts. There’s a plot, and it’s building toward something, so it’s not like you can just remove this or that chunk, but it still occasionally suffers from the weight of that episodic structure.

But it’s a movie about a talking mold! And said mold is voiced by Jeffrey Combs (somewhat misleadingly given name above the title prominence on the cover; he never actually appears in the film), who gives a terrific performance, injecting it with enough personality that you grow to like him/it while also retaining more than just a hint of malevolence. A phoned in vocal turn or one that was simply too far in either direction could have been disastrous for the movie, but Combs absolutely nails it. And it doesn’t hurt that The Mold is a practical effect, brought to life through puppetry and forced perspective type filmmaking as opposed to a CGI effect, which also could have made the movie less than bearable. It’s a perfect marriage of effect and performance, the likes of which we rarely see outside of, I dunno, The Muppets or something. Also, speaking of effects, it's a pretty goopy film at times; it's not EXACTLY body horror, but it skirts on the lines and wouldn't be totally out of place on a shelf with such fare. There's a decaying corpse that legit left me kind of icked out, which doesn't happen all that often.

And going back to the indie stuff, even if you were somehow left with the impression that this was a cynical cash grab, or the result of a few tech bros looking to double their crypto fortune by throwing together that looked good on a spreadsheet, the bonus features more or less all revolve around the fact that this was Thacker’s dream project, with everyone working to fulfill his singular vision. In interviews, behind the scenes pieces, and the commentary (where he’s joined by Combs and lead actor Adrian DiGiovanni), the filmmaker speaks of his influences, the biblical motifs he threaded throughout the narrative, the reasons he wanted to do The Mold practically and why he went to the trouble of casting/recording Combs first to make sure DiGiovanni’s performance would always be in proper tune with his. Even Combs admits he doesn’t understand everything in the film, and that’s a good thing! Better than showing up to rattle off a few lines as the unseen madman in some Saw knockoff, right?

So in short: more like this, please. Again, it’s not my favorite movie of the year or anything like that, but it was completely unique (even some mild comparisons to Little Shop of Horrors or Bucket of Blood type “kill to improve your life” stories are suggesting a very different kind of movie) and never left me in a position of “OK I know how the next five minutes are going to play out, let me look at my phone for a bit.” All I really want from this lo-fi stuff is to realize when it’s over, or even at some point during, that it’s NOT going to be one of those movies that I end up rewatching (and maybe even re-reviewing) in six or seven years because even if I was entertained, it was so “stock” (respect to Lars) that I’ve forgotten I’ve seen it. Short of a brain injury or some kind of degenerative disease, there’s no way I could forget having seen the talking mold movie with a random Game Genie reference. Well done, Mr. Thacker.

What say you?

P.S. Great chiptune score! Per the commentary it was actually recorded with an NES, somehow. Love it.


The Third Saturday In October Part V (and Part 1) (2022)

MAY 4, 2023


One of my favorite spoof films is They Came Together, which came from some of The State/Wet Home American Summer guys and tackled romantic comedies. The thing that made it work so well was that it wasn't doing the Scary Movie kind of spoofing, where it took specific scenes from iconic entries in the genre and added fart jokes or whatever, but just parodied the specific tone of such films, so that everything felt kind of familiar but not directly taken from a movie you might not have seen (and miss the joke) or one you might love and perhaps even find funnier (romcoms are, you know, comedies). A similar approach was taken for The Third Saturday in October and its sequel, though it's not so much of a spoof as a winking homage to such things, and thus some humor is unavoidable since, let's face it, these movies are kind of silly.

In fact the title alone may be the best gag; people repeat it throughout both movies with a straight face, even though it's technically as meaningless as "Friday the 13th" or "Prom Night". And yes, both movies; while I'm not sure how they can convey this information every time, the idea is to watch Part V first and then watch the original, in homage to how many of us growing up watched the big franchises out of order (I myself started with part 4s for both Halloween and Friday the 13th). But honestly, while I did that as requested, I can't think of any instance where it paid off within the films themselves. The casts are entirely different, with the killer the only returning character of note, leaving us to wonder when/where the survivors of part 1 made their exit. The backstory is that both films are part of a low budget Halloween knockoff franchise that has been lost to time, which is a fun enough idea, but since I found the first movie to be slightly better, I wish I had just watched them in numerical order, since I'd have the novelty that was lost by starting with Part V, which - true to tradition - was by design a lesser "for fans only" kind of affair.

Plus, both films are basically the same with regards to their plot: the villain (a serial killer who survived the electric chair and continued his rampage in the first scene of the original; so even part 1 has story before it) makes his way across town, killing a few people at random, before focusing on a single house where a group of characters has gathered to watch a football game. The title refers to how the in-movie characters describe the annual meetup between two rival college football teams (which is a real thing!), and it's a perfect setting for this sort of thing: you get some autumnal/Halloween atmosphere but it's not ON Halloween, a date that's owned by another guy and is often silly to try to use for your own slasher film (I couldn't help but notice how little Scream VI bothered to capitalize on the setting outside of its subway scene). I'm not sure it's necessary for the sequel to tie itself into the date again; few of the Friday the 13ths actually took place on one (let's not forget that parts 2-4 all take place across the same week, so whatever one actually landed on the 13th, the other two did not), but they DEFINITELY didn't need to make the groups of characters so similar: both have an obvious nice guy character trying to spark a relationship with the Final Girl and a random old dude with them (I guess this would be a nod to Chuck and Chili from F13 3D), so when watching back to back as instructed, it can get hard to remember which is which. One can only assume that parts 2-4 mixed it up a bit and Part V was intended to bring things back to its roots, like Scream 5 was.

But all that matters is the slasher carnage, I suppose, and in that department it's pretty good. There's a lot of great practical FX to enjoy, and as one might expect the kills in the "later" Part V are ridiculous, just as Jason's got as the series went along. In fact I'd even say the first film was closer to Halloween, not just in visual references (they do the crane shot, they do the low angle suburban street with the date/location posted on screen, they even match the end credit font) but in tone. There are fewer kills in the original, with slightly more emphasis on suspense, and spend just as much time with an obsessed older guy tracking the killer (he even has a Marion Chambers-like partner) as we do with the young folks the killer is after. The kills we do get are far bloodier than they ever got in Carpenter's original, so that throws off the whole "this movie is really from the 1970's" vibe, but otherwise it's very clearly aping the less violent, more atmospheric early days of the slasher.

Part V, on the other hand (supposedly released in 1994) has several kills out of nowhere and often with silly implements - one girl is murdered with a boiling hot slice of pizza, for example. Curiously, Part V is in scope widescreen whereas the original is 1.85ish, which goes against the Halloween vibe but also only highlights one of the main issues with the films, which is that there isn't much proper stalking. There are scenes of the killer driving around or something (he also occasionally stops to watch the game himself after a kill), but when it comes to the kill scenes, he always just pops out and does it without much buildup or fanfare. The climax for part 1 goes on forever, and it's not because he's giving chase - they just drag it out with other stuff like the Loomis-y guy trying to figure out where the killer is headed after they let him get away again. I would have happily traded any of this stuff for a solid five minute stalk n' chase scene, something even the lesser F13s and Halloween always included.

So the scope image just has more dead air, in a "franchise" that already has too much. Both films spend far too much time on aimless chatter and weird moments (the "meowing" stuff in part 1 is borderline Lynchian with its bizarreness), a complaint one could levy at any number of old slashers (Final Exam comes to mind, and the vibe of both films is very much in line with Slumber Party Massacre and its sequels), but when they're going so far out of their way to remind us of Halloween and F13, these diversions seem misguided. And not for nothing, but some of the touches just betray the whole "these are actually old movies" concept; the title sequence in Part V is far too choreographed and "modern" to buy as anything we would have seen in the last millenium. They were going for Halloween (1978) but actually ended up closer to Halloween (2018) territory, with a lot of the weird indie energy David Gordon Green injected in that film (like the Bánh mì sandwiches discussion and things like that). Part V even has what amounts to a torture scene, for some reason? Jason would never!

They certainly nail the LOOK, however - it's one of the best approximations of such things I've seen, in both the sets and production design (never once did I see anything that really threw it off, and "chef's kiss* to whoever put up the shelf full of Disney VHS clamshells in Part V) and the film-looking image itself, with just the right amount of film damage (not overdone like all those bad Grindhouse wannabes) to really sell it. The synth music is also spot on, though such things are overused now in the Stranger Things era, so while it's technically on point it also, you know, sounds like half of the stuff out there now (not their fault, of course - just an observation of how widespread the whole "let's pretend it's old" concept is nowadays). The performances are spotty, which is also correct for the thing they're going for; either they're actually not the best actors or they're really good at acting bad on purpose. No one is going too over the top, which is the important thing - even the Franklin Hardesty-esque guy in Part V refrains from dialing it up to 11 (something Paul Partain himself didn't manage).

Basically, it's aimed at a very specific audience who will love it, and everyone else will either be bored or simply wish they were watching one of the genuine slashers from the era, some of which may be crude but had the innocence of the whole thing on their side. They can get the camera shots right and lay in the Carpenter font/music and all that, but the soul of these throwback productions will always have that unmistakable lack of naturalness to it, which will always keep them apart from the genuine junk from that era. Maybe you can fool someone with a brief scene or two (though the cheesy mask, which he acquires late in the first film and sports throughout the fifth, never would have flown), but when you watch a whole movie - let alone two of them - you'll catch the slight whiff of condescension before long. I don't doubt that the filmmakers have an affinity for these movies, but what makes those old ones continue to work is that they weren't aware of their shortcomings. Making a crack at them - even a subtle one, as is often the case here - just kills the vibe for me. I'd probably love a fake trailer (probably easier to fool someone with that approach too), but watching three hours of this sort of thing was a bit too much for what amounts to an experimental joke - it felt like watching an entire Stab movie or something (plus Stab 5). And if you took them straight, there's better options even for 1994 (Pumpkinhead II is a bad Pumpkinhead sequel, but it's a decent revenge slasher on its own, with some energy that is often lacking here), let alone all of slasherdom.

TLDR: niche, but the commitment to the bit is admirable, and for that I give them both a passing grade.

What say you?


When A Stranger Calls Back (1993)

MAY 2, 2023


I didn’t think much of it in 1993 when I first/last saw When A Stranger Calls Back, but it was way ahead of the curve when it comes to “legacyquels.” It came along 14 years after the first film (an eternity in horror) and didn’t include any of the characters from the first film until the half hour mark, not unlike what Scream 5 did. And that’s a franchise that owes some debt to the OG When A Stranger Calls (besides the phone call stuff, it only dawned on me watching this film that Sid opening the door to Dewey holding up the mask is a spoof of Charles Durning's first appearance in the first film, a moment that's kind of recreated here). But unfortunately, it also suffers from all of the same problems as the first movie, which I guess is fine if you thought that one was perfect, but while it has its strong points, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it conjures up bad déjà vu.

For starters, Fred Walton and Steve Feke once again bizarrely lose track of key characters only to reintroduce them later, as if they finished a cut of the movie and realized they were like a half hour short of a proper feature runtime but didn’t have the same cast members available to pad it out. In the original 1979 film, Carol Kane’s babysitter character Jill seems to be done with the story, only to be randomly shoehorned into an extended climax after they wrap things up with the other woman the film’s killer was after for the majority of the movie. Here, we start with Jill Schoelen as Julia (couldn’t they come up with a more different name?), who gets a knock on the door from a guy asking to come use the phone to call AAA for his broken down car. She agrees, but when she discovers the phone is dead (heh) she inexplicably decides to pretend she called, rather than just tell him (presumably she feels he wouldn’t believe her, but in the scenario where he’s telling the truth and NOT a psycho, it’s not going to take much for him to figure out they’re not coming and get angry with her anyway).

That aside, this 20-odd minute opening is a terrific way to kick things up, with some solid suspense and an all timer jump scare when she realizes he’s actually in the house and not safely outside. Then, as with the original, we flash forward a few years to catch up with her, and she’s now battling some serious PTSD. In the original, the guy was caught and the kids were found dead, but this time around the killer AND the kids all vanish into thin air, leaving her with serious doubts about her safety and her sanity along with the guilt of being a terrible babysitter. It’s at this point that Jill re-enters the story, now working as a counselor and self-defense coach (her family isn’t mentioned, not sure what happened there), and she is obviously sympathetic to Julia’s plight. So you might be thinking that it’s gonna be a nice two hander where Jill helps Julia and they work together to get the guy or something, right?

Nope! Instead, in a completely off screen and awkwardly explained moment, Julia is shot in the head (seemingly a suicide attempt, though it’s never made clear) and is in a coma, at which point she doesn’t really have any function in the rest of the movie. At one point the killer goes to her hospital room and punches her comatose body for a while (it’s a truly unnerving and weird scene), and then she wakes up in the film’s epilogue, but that’s it for her. It’s a sort of Psycho type move, I guess, and I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but Walton and Feke never quite figure out where to go from there, so we get extended scenes of Jill feeling paranoid herself (why the guy starts going after her is never made clear – but it’s also unclear what he did for five years and in turn why he started going after Julia again. This guy’s whole MO is very confusing), and then even more extended scenes of John Clifford (Durning’s character, who also returns) trying to figure out who the killer is, remarkably zeroing in on the idea that the guy is a ventriloquist and then finding him just as quickly at an open mic night. With no other suspects (this isn’t a whodunit) it’s not particularly engaging to see him do the detective work, but whatever – I guess it’s nice that someone of Durning’s stature would even return to this in the first place, so I’ll allow it.

But the filmmakers also randomly start trying to earn some sympathy for the killer at around an hour into the movie, showing him try to perform his ventriloquist act to an unappreciative crowd, prompting the manager to toss him out. The first film had a lot of this sort of stuff, and while it didn’t work for me I could at least see the point behind it – a “slasher” type movie where we see what the killer does on his day to day when he’s not murdering people. One assumes they decided to try it again here, but it comes so late into the movie that it just feels like more padding, adding to the film’s already sluggish and unfocused narrative. Things finally get good again for the climax, where the killer decides to go after Jill in her own apartment, with a hilarious but still kind of creepy reveal for how he’s hiding in plain sight. But while it’s a solid sequence, it’s hard to forget that it’s also been an hour since the movie had any real juice to it (save for the aforementioned hospital scene), so it’s a “too little too late” scenario.

Walton, Kane, and Schoelen all contribute interviews, and while the actresses’ are fine, I almost wish I didn’t watch Walton’s, since (spoiler of sorts? Not sure how to qualify this) he reveals that Julia was indeed supposed to die in the hospital as a result of the killer’s attack on her comatose body, but the studio refused to allow it and made him rewrite to keep her alive. While this might have made more sense in the narrative (they didn’t really change much about their script it seems, apart from the silly epilogue, which Walton doesn’t like either), it also means one of the movie’s best WTF moments would have just been a generic “finish her off” kind of scene of little interest. So I’d rather keep thinking that! Oh well. The original short film “The Sitter”, which prompted the feature length original film, is also included, though if you’ve seen both movies (not to mention the remake, which stretches out the opening for the entire runtime) there’s little use for it at this point, though I had to laugh that the ice maker gag – which was something I lambasted about the remake having forgotten it was taken from the film – actually originated here! So basically, Calls Back is the *only* one of these four films that doesn’t try to scare us with the sound of ice falling into a dish. Here we get ventriloquism instead. What a weird series.

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: The Haunting of Julia (1977)

APRIL 26, 2023


As is often the case, I remembered liking The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle) when I saw it many years ago as a canon Horror Movie a Day entry, but nothing specific beyond that - I was even kind of hazy on the sub-genre it belonged to. But the most surprising thing about re-reading my review (now over a decade old) was that I saw it on Netflix "Instant", back when their streaming platform was still in its relative infancy (House of Cards didn't even exist yet). It's pretty easy to forget (and almost kind of hard to imagine) that their movie library used to be fairly robust with regards to obscure films; nowadays I assume the deepest cuts are probably DTV studio films from the aughts.

But I should have remembered that it had to have been streaming somewhere, because it never even came to DVD outside of a bootleg version that was released in France. That makes it an usual but highly appreciated choice for Scream Factory to add to their growing 4K UHD library, as the bulk of it is just upgraded versions of their own previous releases (the Carpenter stuff, Return of the Living Dead, etc.). The only other one I know of that came to 4K without a Blu-ray before it (either from their own history or the studio's) was Alligator, but at least that had a DVD to compare to. For this forgotten little gem, with the Netflix option long gone, the only thing to compare the transfer to would be either that bootleg French DVD, or the damned VHS tape.

I say that to note that it's not exactly the most mind-blowing ultra high def restoration out there - it actually looks rather soft to my eyes. But just having the movie at all is the real "get" here, and since most of SF's releases of late have been double dips, it's nice to see that there are still titles like this that they can rescue from out of print hell, and in this case complete obscurity. Despite the presence of Mia "Rosemary's Baby" Farrow and Keir Dullea (who once again breaks into a basement looking for the rattled heroine, as he did in Black Christmas - the man has a niche!), the film's unavailability has left it pretty much unheard of by most genre fans, and the fact that it's known by another title (neither of which are Julia, the name of the Peter Straub novel it's based on) doesn't help much. Long story short, it's a gamble for them to go down the more expensive 4K route with a title that most aren't aware of, and I laud them for it.

For those who didn't click back on my old review and/or simply don't know the story, it's very much in the vein of Don't Look Now or The Changeling (which came later), in that it kicks off with the hero (Farrow) losing their child and then being haunted by their memory... or is it an actual ghost? I've never read Straub's novel*, but from what I understand he makes things a little less vague than the movie, which as depicted seems like the filmmaker wanted you to draw your own conclusions as to whether or not she was just having a mental breakdown or if the ghost was actually committing the (relatively high number of) deaths in the film's second half. And if it was a ghost, which one? Her daughter? A little boy who was murdered? Or the evil child that killed him, who was later in turn murdered by her mother when she realized how wicked her daughter was? Again, it's unclear, but on the commentary track director Richard Loncraine spells it out, prompting his moderator to note that all he has to do is "tour the countryside explaining the movie to anyone who is about to watch it."

That's one of the many comments that makes the track an unexpected delight, as the two men are old pals and, as is quickly made clear, moderator/historian Simon Fitzjohn actually likes the movie more than Loncraine does, as the latter feels that Straub's novel itself had some issues (I poked around online and the consensus is that Ghost Story was his improved version of the same kind of story, a sort of "Four Flies on Grey Velvet compared to the later Deep Red" type situation) and he didn't do the best job of fixing them. So the two take little jabs at each other while running through the usual retrospective type commentary, with Loncraine talking about the production, working with Farrow and the others (apparently she caught Rosemary on tv a few nights before shooting started and suddenly decided she didn't want to do the movie in fear of repeating herself; Loncraine had to convince her to stay on), etc, while Fitzjohn gets into the "Where are they now?" sort of thing. It's the sort of track I wish I heard more often, as you usually get a moderator who is just asking questions to the director without bringing much to the table at all, or a historian who is by themselves and goes off on unrelated tangents to fill up the dead space since there's only so much they can know without someone who actually made the movie sitting there with him.

(So if they upgrade Shocker to 4K, I'll be the historian, but I want Peter Berg and/or Mitch Pileggi there with me. Thanks in advance.)

There are also a pair of interviews, one with Tom Conti who plays Farrow's friend/potential new love interest, and Samantha Gates who played the evil child Olivia. They're both fine, if a bit overlong considering their relatively minor roles in the film (Gates in particular is only onscreen for a minute or so, but the interview runs for over ten minutes). Of more interest is a solid critique from Kim Newman, which runs 25 minutes and acts as a sort of mini historian commentary, highlighted by his noting that Farrow's career is most famous for Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and her work with Woody Allen, which has to suck. There's also a fun little visit to the shooting locations as they exist today, a bonus feature I always enjoy as someone who visits such locations for personal faves (the first time I came to LA, I looked for Fletch's apartment in Santa Monica). Loncraine also provides an intro to the film, but like all the other extras (save the commentary) it's confined to the accompanying standard Blu-ray, which puzzles me - it's not even a minute long, could it really not "fit" on the 4K disc with a mere 95 minute film? I only found it because I decided to take the standard disc with me to work (no 4K there) to watch the rest of the commentary on my lunch break.

Other than that, it's a solid release for a film that could have easily continued to languish in moratarium; one of those releases where even a bare-bones presentation would have been enough to make fans happy since there was literally nothing better (unless you're one of those obnoxious VHS champions who find a murky/cropped tape of Die Hard or something and hold it up like it's a treasure as opposed to something that should just be thrown away). I hope it's a successful gambit for Scream Factory as I'd like to see them continue to "save" these movies as often as they can, as opposed to sticking with safe bets like upgrading Army of Darkness or whatever to 4K. Not that I'm against that sort of thing, especially if it keeps the lights on (and you know damn well I upgraded my Halloween releases), but I feel there should be room for both, preferably in equal measures!

What say you?

*I have it here though; I was planning to actually do a comparison when this disc came out, but got swamped on a much larger "book vs movie" project that will hopefully appear in a certain horror mag later this year!


Evil Dead Rise (2023)

APRIL 24, 2023


I think I was about an hour into Evil Dead Rise when I realized why the film wasn’t working for me: like the 2013 remake (which I was also mixed on at best) it was aimed at the people who find Sam Raimi's first two films “cheesy” or “cheap looking” or whatever. On a technical level these two films – which admirably largely eschew digital effects in favor of practical ones – are flawless, no argument there. There's more money to play with, and it's all on screen, with professional actors to boot. But there’s simply no soul to these modern entries, and their relatively large budgets betray the whole appeal of the first film and its 1987 sequel: seeing what a creative and determined guy can accomplish with nothing (on the first one) and then seeing him truly cut loose when he had more money to play with the second time around. That is why the films make for such a great double feature (weird retconning aside due to ED2 not having access to ED1 footage): you’re seeing the progression of a filmmaker (and an actor in Bruce Campbell) on a technical level, while marveling that Raimi had lost none of his gonzo sense of humor in the intervening years.

But let’s face it: the story of the series is not particularly interesting. People read from a creepy book and supernatural forces come forward, killing all but one person, who usually grabs a chainsaw and takes out the immediate threat, but doesn’t stop it entirely. It's just an excuse to cut loose with whatever Raimi (or now, his successors) can dream up, and it's seeing that kitchen sink approach in action that makes them fun - when they're at their best, you truly have no idea what will happen next. Raimi seemed to understand the limitations of this concept, setting the third film in medieval times and turning it into more of a fantasy/adventure film than a traditional horror one, using our affinity with Campbell’s hero Ash Williams to smooth the wildly different tone and approach. For some it worked great – it’s their favorite one! I myself just find it OK, but there are others who wanted things to go back to the scarier roots of the first film. And to their credit, that’s what this film and the 2013 remake did – but they also seem content to recycle Raimi's ideas at the expense of coming up with too many of their own.

The biggest issue with this film (and the remake suffered from this too, now that I think of it) is that there’s no real sense of escalation or pacing. The first film certainly has its slower moments, but there’s a real buildup overall; every time another friend gets possessed things get more and more hectic until the final reel becomes just a nonstop frightfest, with Raimi’s camera constantly swishing around and Campbell being tortured with every turn. Here, writer/director Lee Cronin stages things more like a slasher movie for whatever reason; every time someone dies, there’s ten minutes of not all that much happening until the next possession occurs. And that might be fine if the other characters weren’t aware of the threat, but that’s not the case – the first possessed person makes their grand entrance to all four of the other characters right off the bat, which results in the film being repetitive on top of being poorly paced. A possessed person does something creepy (usually some sort of self harm and/or puking liquid everywhere) as the others watch in terror, then they run into another room of the apartment, regroup, make some kind of escape attempt that puts them in contact with the possessed person, who then does something creepy as the others watch in terror, then they run... you get the idea.

I mentioned the apartment, and that’s the other thing that kept the movie from ever really working for me: they totally waste the potential of the location. For the first time, one of these movies takes place in a big city (LA to be specific, though the New Zealand production obviously limits how much they can really sell us on that idea), with our heroes residing in a big apartment complex that is said to be falling apart and set to be torn down the following month. So one might be hoping for a real expansive romp around the building, like a modern update on Demons 2, right? Nope – we barely ever leave the protagonists’ apartment (and yet the layout for it remains hazy even by the end of the film, despite spending so much time there) and the only other people we see live directly next door. Don’t the other residents hear all of the commotion? Wouldn’t the Deadites roam around the joint looking for fresh victims to help when our heroes have themselves barricaded? I guess we can assume that the impending demolition has already scared off most of the residents, but since our heroes have two neighbors and we see several cars (not the Classic, however!) in the building’s shared garage before anything even happens, there should be at least a few others that could have gotten roped into the proceedings.

The lone exception is a millennial on the 4th floor (our heroes are on the 14th) who we meet as a possessed person in a flash forward prologue set in the woods, but she doesn’t show up again until the very end, showing how she got that way. This little bookend almost makes the movie seem like a prequel to the usual idea, showing how the Deadite force got from Los Angeles to the woods, and it’s rather pointless in the grand scheme of things, but I’ll allow it since a. otherwise we wouldn’t see anything exciting happen for a half hour and b. it has the only good joke in the entire movie, where a Raimi-esque “shaki cam” shot is revealed to be the POV of a drone one of the girl’s friends is using. But on the other hand, this opening suggests the movie will have a sense of humor, which it most certainly does not outside of a few darkly mean-spirited lines. The only other time I laughed was at an out of nowhere slam on the Freddy sequels.

Cronin also makes a miscalculation with his group of victims: a woman named Ellie and her three children, plus her sister Beth. Beth is a typical slacker type who fails to keep up with her sister’s phone calls, managing to miss that Ellie’s husband (and the childrens’ father) has left them, and she has just discovered she got pregnant during one of her (suggested frequent) casual hookups, so we have our character arc: she’s not exactly planning to be a mother, but thanks to the film's events she's going to get a rather intense crash course on being one! That’s fine, but not since Hereditary have I seen a casting director seemingly go out of their way to find people who couldn’t look less alike to play a family. There’s enough of a resemblance to pass the son and the younger of the two sisters as siblings since they at least have the same color hair, but otherwise it was honestly distracting – I kept waiting for some sort of explanation that they were all adopted or something. And Ellie and Beth don’t look anything alike either, so when the inevitable “I have to kill my sister” kind of stuff comes into play, it doesn’t land as well as it should – they might as well be strangers, since they barely interact prior to Ellie's possession. We also know that this big screen Warner Bros movie won’t be killing the little girl (or her protector), so that also betrays the “anything goes” spirit of the first film, where Ash wasn’t any more prominent than the other characters and thus had just as much chance of survival as they did. All of the neighbors are wiped out too early too, another thing that could have helped add some suspense to the proceedings. Sure, we know they're all goners, but the WHEN of it all can generate some tension. Alas, they all die within seconds of their first encounter with Ellie.

Weirder still, there’s not really anything all that inventive with the gore and violence. There’s a big scene set to someone chewing glass, but it’s not even as unsettling as the one in Oculus, a movie that wasn’t being sold on its gnarliness. Most of the effects involve the possessed person puking blood or bile or some kind of goo on another character, which is effective enough the first time but by the 3rd or 4th one might wonder why it is no one tapes the possessed folks’ mouths shut whenever they’re temporarily subdued. The only time it ever starts to feel like there’s a genuine IDEA behind a sequence is when Beth watches some slaughter occurring through the front door’s peephole, which leaves some of the carnage off screen and allowing a quick scare when a body is tossed back into the fishbowl style POV. I also liked the final form of the Deadite menace (I won’t spoil the particulars), the appearance of which is boosted by Beth and the little girl finally leaving their apartment for a change of scenery, but couldn’t help but wish it had appeared sooner. Plus, said scene is in the garage, which just reminded me that there were a bunch of residents who weren’t being utilized, an hour or so after the idea of “the Deadites infect an entire apartment building!” was suggested and never delivered upon. But for each of those scattered good ideas, we're given eye-rolling references to the others (including a "Dead by dawn!" chant), which I'm sure made someone with a Bruce Campbell tattoo cheer on opening night, but left me just wondering why in 35 years the best idea they could come up with is "what if someone else ALSO did this?"

So I dunno. It’s got good reviews and audience scores, and several friends have loved it, but it just didn’t work for me. I kept waiting for things to kick up a notch, but the final scenes (save for the aforementioned "final form" and accompanying obligatory chainsaw bit) aren’t any more intense or imaginative than the ones we saw a few minutes into the runtime during the prologue, and far too much of the movie is devoted to people simply giving “oh my GOD what IS HAPPENING?” kind of looks at the possessed characters (after a while I started wondering if Beth had some kind of Memento like amnesia, since she repeatedly seems shocked to see things she’d already witnessed in the previous scenes). And when it ended, I was aghast to realize that both Renfield and Pope’s Exorcist have more inventive examples of both splatter and dismemberment than this Evil Dead movie, which to me would be like if Ed Sheeran or someone like that was opening for Metallica and somehow managed to put on a more exciting show. Due to the lack of rules for Deadites (which is otherwise fine), it's hard to say what exactly makes this an "Evil Dead movie" as the evil force lacks a repeated presence (meaning a calling card "boogeyman" figure one could slap on mugs and T-shirts), and our new hero doesn't stand out. Even the remake knew enough to play with the idea of who the new hero might be, but here it's clearly Beth from the start and she is never given all that much to do until the final moments. So there’s no Ash (or "Ash"), there’s no cabin, there’s no Classic... the only thing left to live up to the title that they were coasting on would be the “splattery Three Stooges” type of physical action, but they kept dropping the ball and settling for restaging Raimi's moments far too often, content to coast on his ideas while bringing precious few of their own to the table. Just a huge letdown.

What say you?


FTP: Hansel and Gretel Get Baked (2023)

APRIL 21, 2023


I've had Hansel and Gretel Get Baked in "the pile" for probably six years at this point, always thinking "I'll watch it on 4/20, because lol" and then forgetting about it. But with my renewed purpose to actually get through said pile once and for all, I was determined to finally get it over with this time around, though I didn't get to start it until late* and naturally I fell asleep, watching most of it on the morning of 4/21, which actually marks a different celebration (Happy birthday, Antonio Bay!). But whatever, one more pile movie down!

If you don't know by now, I'm not a drug user. I enjoy alcohol (though I've also cut back there!), but have never found any interest in drugs - I had an edible during a bachelor party and took the smallest possible hit off a joint a few years ago, and that is the entirety of my drug consumption in my 43 years on this planet. I've always figured that I'm weird and rambly enough as is, so drugs would just exacerbate those (not always welcome!) habits. Plus I'm allergic to cigarette smoke and figure pot would produce the same effect (in that I find it hard to breathe and my voice starts to sound like that of a demon), so... yeah. Just not my thing!

So naturally I'm not really the target audience for this sort of thing, which if you haven't guessed by the double meaning title, turns the familiar fairy tale heroes into modern day stoners. Well, Gretel is; Hansel doesn't partake, but he gets nearly "baked" (meaning cooked) so it's not false advertising. Anyway, the witch has a special strain that is much desired, and while she has a guy selling on the streets for her, some folks - including Gretel's boyfriend - just stroll up to her door (in Pasadena!) and ask to buy it, at which point she lures them inside and kills them. With each victim she gets younger, so when she first appears she's clearly a younger actress in (not great) old age makeup, but by the halfway point you'll hopefully recognize Lara Flynn Boyle, who seems to be enjoying returning to evil woman territory (The Temp hive, rise up!).

But... that's pretty much all there is to the movie. Someone comes to her door, she gets them inside, gives them some tea or something, and then kills them. Eventually the filmmakers toss some zombies (previous victims) and an evil dog into the mix, but it does little to alleviate how repetitive and glacial the pacing is, despite the seemingly (sorry) high energy premise. I swear a full third of the movie involves Boyle (who never leaves the house) talking to someone at the front door, which made it difficult to find my place this morning as I rewound the Blu-ray (it had resume play, bless them) as every third scene looked the same. People at the door, Gretel (Molly Quinn) wandering around looking for her boyfriend, Hansel (Mike from the Twilight movies, the poor sod) looking for HER, repeat. Eventually some rival drug dealers get introduced, but as with the zombies, it's just a brief interruption to what is an otherwise shockingly low energy and monotonous movie.

It's also not particularly funny, which was surprising. I don't mean "That joke was awful" unfunny, I mean it simply didn't have too many jokes. Boyle tosses in some sinister puns and there's the occasional weird joke, but I was expecting an Idle Hands type tone, and I have to admit I was kind of relieved it wasn't like that. Not that it worked as an actual scary movie or anything, but with the repetitive structure I feel the movie would be completely unbearable if I had to put up with a lot of mugging and puns and poorly edited physical comedy. That it was relatively played straight was, ironically, one of the film's few good points.

And if you were attracted to the thing by seeing Cary Elwes' name on the cover, don't get too excited - not only is he only in the first scene, but he's almost unrecognizable as a nameless meter man, sporting coke bottle glasses and a dorky haircut - he kinda resembles Milton from Office Space. On the other hand, Boyle is in it more than I expected, so that was nice, even if she had to wear that awful makeup for the first half. The makeup isn't the only visual blemish, I should note; the transfer on this Blu is horrendous, as nearly every dark scene has that crushed grey/halo effect going on - I've seen VHS tapes that looked better.

But I mean, I wasn't expecting it to be good, and in fact I figured it'd be some Gingerdead Man level atrocity. That it was merely forgettable and dull was a strangely pleasant surprise. And it inches me one step closer to being rid of the ugly little plastic shelving tray that houses the "pile" from atop my record collection, and once I watch that last disc, I can get another cube and in turn, have room for more records! Thanks, Hansel and Gretel Get Baked.

What say you?

*Because I went to a screening of the first two episodes of Amazon Prime's new Dead Ringers series, which modernizes/enhances the story from the book (and yes, subsequent Cronenberg film) while also making Beverly and Elliot into women, played by Rachel Weisz. And so far it kinda rules? It's funny, dark, sexy... kinda fires on all cylinders, and Weisz is clearly having the most fun she's had since, hell, maybe The Mummy Returns? All episodes drop today, I highly encourage it even if you're crying foul at "remaking Cronenberg" (who, at that time, was coasting on his success from remaking The Fly, so).


Last Gasp (1995)

APRIL 12, 2023


For whatever reason, whenever I would request a film for review from the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome, they would send everything they were putting out that month (I assume this is their standard practice, but don't want to speak for everyone!). And that is a nice way to pad out the collection and occasionally find a gem that wasn’t on my radar (like Cemetery of Terror, or pretty much anything from director Ruben Galindo Jr), but also means I end up with a lot of their filler like Last Gasp. This thing has been sitting in the “pile” (now an actual shelf) for two years because it didn’t sound particularly interesting, but I like star Robert Patrick, so I kept it around for a proverbial rainy day. Which finally came today.

The thing about Patrick is that he is a terrific character actor, rightfully respected and a “get” for movies and shows that need someone who offers his particular “you’re not sure if you can trust this guy” presence (X-Files in particular benefited from this, as he was replacing Mulder on the team but taking over skeptic duties from the now believer Scully). But that skill isn’t utilized here – in fact it’s downright wasted for a story in which his character is proven to be a jerk in his first scene. He’s a real estate developer in Mexico where the locals keep killing his builders for invading their land, so after promising a proper burial for the latest victim (which he instead has the body tossed in a river) he hires a guy to just kill all the locals to solve the problem. The mercenary eggs him on to finish one guy off himself, and then he is possessed by the man’s spirit.

This prompts him to kill people (while painted up and wearing next to nothing like the jungle-dwelling locals, which is slightly problematic but gives Patrick a chance to show off his physique), but… he already had no problem with that, nor was he an innocent victim like Larry Talbot or whoever. The actual hero of the film is Joanna Pacula’s character, who is introduced much later as the wife of a man who disappeared while working on Patrick’s project. Perhaps if we met her first and then gradually learned what was up with Patrick’s character, there’d be some engagement to her plight, but since we have all the answers long before she does (hell, mostly before we even MEET her), there’s little reason to invest yourself in the narrative. They don’t even tease out the mystery of her husband’s disappearance – a randomly inserted flashback tells us he’s dead not long after we even knew he existed, having been killed during one of Patrick’s possession sprees. Weirder, the movie spends like 20 straight minutes with a PI she’s hired to find the man, and we stick with him as if he’s the actual hero of the movie. To be fair, it’s (spoiler for 30 year old movie ahead) slightly surprising when he is killed at the end of the first act, but again this would only work if we hadn’t already known everything. When he dies it isn’t a “oh wow, he’s dead!” moment, it’s a “So why were we focusing on this guy for long?” one. It’d be like if Psycho started out with Norman tending to his mother’s corpse in lieu of the hotel scene with Marion and Sam, but still wanted us to be shocked when she died in the shower.

I assume that the original script was indeed told more from the Pacula character’s perspective, only to be carelessly reworked to get Patrick – still high on his T2 fame – front and center in the proceedings, but unfortunately no one thought to simply make him a decent guy in the process, which would at least give us the sort of American Werewolf in London type tragedy at its center. Who cares if he’s possessed by a vengeful spirit when he was already scummy to begin with? Why are we watching a PI look for a missing car for a man we already know is dead (and also who killed him)? It’s just a baffling approach that renders the movie inert nearly from the start. The only reason to keep watching is – because this was a mid-90s pay cable movie – to enjoy the occasional sex scene, since such things are so rare nowadays. Not that I need nudity to enjoy a movie, but it’s such a taboo thing now that it sadly rates as a novelty whenever I watch an older movie and see it presented so casually, not unlike how odd it looks to see Bruce Willis smoking in an airport in Die Hard 2.

In other words, if our country hadn’t gotten even more prudish than it already was over the past 30 years, this movie would have literally nothing going for it. VS didn’t even bother to produce any new extras of note, which is pretty telling too since they always have at LEAST a commentary or lengthy interview with one of the movie’s principles. Here all we get are some outtakes and the trailer, which does indeed make it look more like a man struggling with a curse than it ever comes off in the finished film. What a dull, pointless movie.

What say you?


Renfield (2023)

MARCH 30, 2023


As a big fan of Nicolas Cage, I was stoked to see him return to the multiplexes last year with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, but was mixed on the movie itself (as I tend to always be when people play exaggerated versions of themselves, i.e. Last Action Hero and the Jay + Bob Strike Back movies). And it wasn’t exactly a huge hit, so I feared it would be a one and done “return” and he’d be back in VOD stuff for a while, but here we are only a year later with a full on big budget studio movie. Renfield isn’t just Cage’s return to would-be blockbuster material (I don’t think Massive Talent was ever expected to be a smash; Renfield needs to hit nine digits at the box office just to break even), but it’s also his return to vampire territory, 35 years after one of his best films: 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss.

Of course, in that film he’s not an actual vampire, he just thinks he’s one (amusingly, the day I saw Renfield in New Orleans via the Overlook Festival, my copy of the new 4K UHD of the similar Martin arrived at home). No such ambiguity here: he’s not just a vampire, he’s THE vampire – Dracula himself. The movie curiously posits itself as a sequel to the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi film, inserting Cage and Nicholas Hoult (as the title character) into classic moments from that film in order to bring us up to speed – we even get Cage delivering the “I never drink… wine” line! If you think about it too much it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (and changes the ending), but it’s fine – it’s just a quick way to establish early on that this is a “what happens next” kind of story, not a modern retelling of the usual tale (albeit from Renfield’s perspective) or whatever, with the added bonus of seeing Cage do a surprisingly solid Lugosi impression.

Anyway, as you can expect from the title the main focus is on Renfield, who is also seemingly immortal thanks to occasionally drinking Dracula’s blood (which can also heal wounds simply from being poured over them). So it’s now the modern day (in New Orleans; not sure what prompts them to move there but it’s a fun location all the same) and he’s quite lonely, having obviously lost his family long ago and living an empty life devoted to nothing but doing his master’s bidding. In order to find fresh victims he joins an AA type group for people who are in/trying to escape from toxic relationships, using the information his fellow members divulge to track down terrible people for his boss to feed on (so like, when one girl talks about her abusive boyfriend, he finds the guy and brings him to Dracula – a fine way to keep Renfield sympathetic!). But after experiencing an epiphany and realizing he himself is in a toxic relationship, he decides to use what he’s learned and try to escape from Dracula’s shadow – something his boss is unsurprisingly not too happy about.

This alone probably could have generated a pretty good movie – not to mention given Cage more screentime – but part of Renfield’s journey is inspired by a chance meeting with a cop played by Awkwafina. She too is fed up with her bosses, who stick her on DUI checkpoint duty (“in a town with drive-thru daiquiris!”) when she really wants to take down the local mob that killed her father (also a cop), which should inform anyone that’s ever seen a movie before that the cops are under the mob’s thumb and her poking her nose in their business is going to get her killed by one of her own fellow officers. While she makes a few appearances in the trailer I was surprised how much of the movie focused on her and the mob story (the latter of which not hinted at in the trailer at all; Ben Schwarz as the Sonny Corleone-esque hothead under the mob boss/his mom, played by Shoreh Aghdashloo*, also has more screentime than Cage), to the extent that it’s basically a two-hander instead of relegating her to “the love interest”. Which is fine in theory; I just feel she’s not a particularly engaging actress who plays the same character in everything, so not only is she not believable as a cop but it’s also asking a lot of the audience who was sold on, you know, Nic Cage as Dracula.

And he’s great! He doesn’t do the “mega-acting” thing all that much (if anything he’s subtle compared to the likes of Gary Oldman in his uncle Francis' movie) and while the movie is basically a comedy it’s very rarely on account of anything he’s doing or saying. He’s a legit menacing presence, with some fantastic makeup in his early scenes as he is left nearly dead from the opening encounter and has to be nourished back to health. In his first big modern day scene he comes off more like The Hunchback (or, to go outside of the Universal Monster canon, Paul McCrane in Robocop right before he meets the business end of Kurtwood Smith’s car), and then each subsequent appearance has him more “intact” until he’s back to his seductive glory – with the actor clearly relishing the process and having different shades to play; going from kind of pathetic/angry to suave and fully in control. So if you’re the type of person who judges the actor’s performances on how many memes it will inspire, you might be disappointed, but if you’re like me and just find him a genuinely talented and interesting actor who commits to whatever role comes his way, you’ll hopefully share my opinion that this is, even if somewhat by default due to his mostly generic VOD stuff, one of his best on-screen performances in nearly 20 years (along with Pig, Joe, and Mandy – I guess single word titles are a good luck charm?). Even the sadly limited screentime (30 minutes would be an optimistic guess?) is ultimately kind of a good thing – he makes his scenes count, and after all this time “away” (he’s never stopped working, it’s just… look, even I haven’t heard of half the stuff on his recent filmography, and I love the guy) as someone rooting for a comeback I love that people will walk out saying “I wish Nic Cage was in it more!”

That’s nothing against Hoult or the other cast, I should stress. Schwarz is pretty funny as the other antagonist, and Brandon Scott James (John from The Good Place) steals just about every scene he’s in as the leader of the self-help meeting group. I mean, I should be clear if you haven’t figured it out from the trailers: this is a horror comedy that is more concerned with the latter part of that equation, and Hoult’s depressed state means he doesn’t get too many laughs himself, so the supporting cast is what keeps the energy high. It’s a pretty short movie (93 minutes) and clearly had some slicing – the credits tout all of the dancers used in a scene that didn’t make the cut (though a few frames are shown in the accompanying stylized animated credits) – but I think it works in the movie’s favor. It’s just plain FUN, racing along through the somewhat generic mob story but engaging us with Renfield’s plight and Dracula’s increasing menace over everyone. You’re never more than a few minutes from another big laugh and/or gory action scene, and that’s fine with me – escapism is a good thing.

Back to the gore, I was at times surprised at how splattery it got. A little too digital at times for my tastes, but I can forgive it when it’s not supposed to be taken seriously anyway. This is no “Rated R because they didn’t feel like trimming out 12 frames to make it PG-13” type movie – there is a shocking amount of dismemberment going on, and most of it comes from our hero. When he eats bugs he gets super strength, and uses it to literally kick villains (mob guys or dirty cops) apart when it’s time for another action scene. And Cage gets in on the action too, decimating a room full of people with his claws and fangs – the R is earned several times over, which is much appreciated for a relatively big budget ($65m!) studio film that, while not technically an original since it’s still a Dracula movie, isn’t exactly a can’t-miss “franchise” movie either like Scream. Let’s put it this way: in order to be counted as a theatrical hit, this will have to be the highest grossing Dracula movie ever (not counting the animated Hotel Transylvania series), so it’s a risky but admirable move from Universal to sink that much into it at all, let alone focus the ad campaign around an actor who hasn’t toplined a major hit in 14 years (Knowing). During the peak of Covid times, there was some talk about how when theaters came back it’d only be surefire safe movies (i.e. Marvel stuff and Blumhouse type horror), with almost nothing aimed specifically at adults, but Universal is consistently shrugging off such worries with offbeat R rated fare – they just had Cocaine Bear (a surprise smash) and later this year they’ll have a talking dog movie that also sports an R rating. Good for them!

Anyway, it won’t be for everyone, especially if the humor turns you off or you’re some kind of purist that can’t get past the idea of this being a sequel to Browning’s film (I guess they also hate Abbott and Costello’s adventure?). And as I said, if you’re like me and find Awkwafina kind of grating, you have to deal with her having as much screentime as its title character, though thankfully she’s not too bad (if, again, not believable) and scores a few good lines (poor Officer Kyle) to balance things out. Hoult and Cage do terrific work and the movie rarely slows down long enough to start questioning things, and I think that’s exactly what makes it a winner. That it also has something to say about dealing with narcissistic personalities and how you can escape from them is just icing on the cake; a message that enhances the goofy fun of the rest of the movie instead of dwelling on it and bumming people out. And unlike the last big Dracula movie (2014’s Dracula Untold) it’s not concerned with setting up a stupid cinematic universe, so that’s another check in the “pro” column.

What say you?



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